Monasteries of the Heart

Old Monk's Journal: Journal Entry 216

Holy leisure is my favorite pillar of Benedictine spirituality. It’s probably why I entered the monastery—I wanted to live a life of holy leisure. And that intent is the bedrock of my call, the one that keeps me here.

I consider holy leisure time spent doing stuff that doesn’t seem productive. What people might call wasting time: silence, good reading, visiting art galleries, conversation with friends. That’s why I so look forward to my two-week vacation that spans the end of August and the start of September. Here are some holy leisure moments:

Right before vacation started, I was one of about 50 people who participated in the 2nd anniversary of the Silent Peace Walk sponsored by the Erie Benedictines for Peace. It began with a picnic of hot dogs, veggie burgers, snacks, and watermelon in the yard of our old Motherhouse in the center of the city, the area where the founders of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie first settled in 1856. Following an hour of food, drink, and good conversation, the walk began.

A silent peace walk is just that—a bell rings, the group recites a prayer, you walk in silence for 20 minutes and end with another prayer. It is not a protest in the traditional sense. We are not railing against anything. The Erie group changes venues monthly. A walk in the downtown park. A walk around the county prison. A walk in the arboretum. Anyone can make the case that silent peace walks are good for nothing. Of course, “what is essential is invisible to the eye” and maybe walking in mindful silence can bring deeper inner peace. I don’t know, but I can’t think of a better way to spend 20 minutes


Spent 45 minutes in Aki Himalayan Salt Room today hoping the therapy is healing my lungs which are getting progressively worse. Cough. Cough. Cough. Day and night. If you’ve never experienced a salt room, go find one even if you don’t have respiratory problems. It’s a great excuse to do nothing for almost an hour but bask in the beautiful dim glow of rock lamps, listen to soothing instrumental music, recline in a gravity chair, and breathe micro particles of dry salt. You can even take a nap without guilt.


Read three good books during the two weeks: Why Religion? by Elaine Pagels, Ten Poems for Difficult Times by Roger Housden, and Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama. Anyone rating these would lean to Pagels and Housden as ideal “holy leisure books”. And they are. Kusama’s life would probably be listed on the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books but it was my favorite. This avant-garde, mentally ill, highly acclaimed Japanese artist has pushed every boundary possible in her “search for the truth that leads to light.” Georgia O’Keeffe was very instrumental in encouraging a young Kusama and introducing her to the New York art world. In the book, Kusama says of O’Keeffe, “She possessed a certain genuine and deeply embedded spirituality, and it is largely to this that I attribute her greatness.” I feel the same way about Kusama.


Shopping in Kazoo II is another experience in holy leisure that I look forward to during vacation. We drive to the village of Ellicottville, NY once a year to spend leisurely time in the store, browsing the unusual art pieces the owner buys from artists across the country, and the eclectic selection of “spiritual” books that she displays, and the holy images that span traditions, and the unique greeting cards…. I always try to purchase something, usually it’s a book. I had two in my hand as I got ready to leave and then said to myself, “Books, books, always books. Take one of those art pieces from Santa Fe that you were admiring.” So I did. I’m now looking for a place to hang a modern icon titled “Angel in the Garden” by Christina Miller.


Though I live only 90 minutes from Buffalo and visit often, I’ve never been to the city’s Botanical Gardens. Until this vacation. What a lovely, leisurely stroll through 12 Houses of various plants. House 1 is the Palm Dome. House 2 is Aquatic Gardens. House 4 is Cacti & Succulents. You get the idea. I had two favorites. House 3, Asian Rainforest, felt like a meditation room with its Buddha statues, moon gate, and decorative tea house. I could have camped out for a while. House 8 was Orchids and what I loved there is that they selected three orchid plants and put an empty frame around each one. It forced you to look at them differently. This morning in church I selected one person from across the aisle and put an invisible frame around his face. Then I looked at him as the work of art that he was.


How about beef on weck, the No 1 reason to eat lunch at Schwabl’s, a family restaurant in West Seneca that’s been open since 1837? Lo and behold, the menu also advertised fresh hand-grated potato pancakes. Eat slowly, savor every morsel.


My final holy leisure event was a visit to Frank Llyod Wright’s “Graycliff” a Lake Erie summer home the famed architect designed outside of Buffalo. I had toured it about ten years ago when it was under renovation and never forgot it. Now it is completely restored and what a treasure. The house is all windows and, when you approach it, you can see the lake right through it—no curtains or shutters or darkened windows. It’s all light. If I could choose a dream house to live in, Graycliff is it. It was a gift to sit for an hour in the simple elegance of the home and listen to the tour guide tell Wright stories. There are a few sacred places that, following a visit, never left me. Taize is one, the market square in Krakow is another. And Graycliff is a third. When I call them to memory, I fill with light…and with soul.

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A blog by Mary Lou Kownacki
A personal journal captures what’s in the heart. Most of my adult life I’ve recorded my notes, brief reflections, poems, reactions to daily events in a journal. It is an ongoing source of monastic formation; the rich and raw material of life that helps shape my Monastery of the Heart. About a year ago, Old Monk began to appear on my journal’s pages. Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, is the Monasteries of the Heart coordinator.

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